Continuing along in the High Holiday series, I wanted to talk about what Rosh Hashana is about.
We know it’s the Jewish New Year. But it starts at the beginning of the 7th month of the year known as Tishrei. What New Year starts on the 7th month of the year? It’s also known as the Yom HaDin or Day of Judgment. Sounds heavy. But generally Rosh Hashana is considered a day of celebration. When do you sit in judgment eating apples and honey and honey cake? To answer these questions we have to look at the core of the holiday.
For one thing, the only actual mitzvah for Rosh Hashana is to hear the Shofar sounded. You technically aren’t commanded to sit in shul all day or eat apples and honey. It is a Yom Tov so there are Sabbath-like restrictions, but that’s not specific for this holiday. So what’s this rams horn about?
You can find a myriad of explanations at any Jewish website, from the ultimate wake up call, to reminders of Mt. Sinai. The one that I find most helpful is a call back to an era of kingship and monarchy. For most Americans, the notion of monarchy is a bit absurd. But there was once a time the trumpets of kings announced the coming of majesty. The shofar is the ultimate embodiment of that majesty. And if you are willing to hear it, you have the chance to tap into something available only once a year…
New Year means what exactly?
So I kinda lied about Rosh Hashana being the 7th month of the year. It’s actually the first month of the year depending on the perspective. That’s because Judaism has 4 new years. So the better question would be to ask what New Year does Rosh Hashana commemorate? What has been going on for 5776 years?
Judaism believes that Rosh Hashana commemorates the birth of man. That’s hard for me to take literally as I believe in archeological evidence which makes clear there were human civilizations well over 10,000 years ago. But if you look at the Hebrew, the passage that the commemoration refers to has a bit more going on than just God created man. Below is a passage from Genesis 2:7.
וַיִּיצֶר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה
יִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה
And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground,
and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.
Now I’ve bolded two separate words. In English, they both are translated as soul, but in the Hebrew they are obviously different. You can tell a lot about a language by how many different words it has for a concept. I’m sure you’ve heard that eskimos have dozens of words for ice. Well Judaism has quite a few words for soul. In this case we’re looking at nefesh and neshama. Nefesh is a more general form of the soul. Every living thing has a nefesh. But a neshama is a unique aspect that only human beings possess. And this process was completed on the first Rosh Hashana when 577X years ago, the clock started ticking.
Great we were created today. So what? Without going into too much detail, the neshama is the part of our being that allows us to change the world. I’ve mentioned before that there is no doubt that the human race has impacted the earth in immeasurable ways. As we get older, it sometimes gets hard to believe that we still have an impact. At least, on an individual level. Rosh Hashana comes along to give us a chance at rebirth and remind us that there is plenty of potential still left. But what does it take to tap into that potential?
What is judgment? People are fond of declaring, “I don’t judge.” And they shouldn’t. In fact, there is a commandment for us to judge favorably. But with respect to Rosh Hashana we’re talking about something different.
In order to be judged, there must be a realization that one fell short of their potential. Otherwise, how could said person fairly be judged? If someone is ruled incompetent to be responsible for their actions, they are not held accountable for said actions. So right off the bat we’re looking at potential again. Rosh Hashana asks of you to judge yourself. But remember this isn’t about feeling bad and atoning. We’ve got another day for that.
To judge yourself on Rosh Hashana is to take a long hard look of what you could be. And once one has that image, free of all obstacles and excuses, as if by gift from God himself, we are given the opportunity to claim it. And unlike a secular New Year’s resolution, Judaism believes this is the spiritual time to make that leap. With meditation, that potential version of ourselves becomes crystal clear. And with that we are ready to take on a new year.
But things are obviously keeping you from fulfilling that potential. That’s what the next 10 days are for….